Thursday, 29 April 2010
Seanad Eireann Debate
Minister of State at the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources (Deputy Conor Lenihan): I welcome the opportunity to address Members on a new telecommunications technology, the TETRA system, an acronym for terrestrial trunked radio. It is a new digital mobile radio service primarily intended for use by the emergency services in responding to emergencies. It is envisaged that all emergency services in Ireland, including the Garda Síochána, the fire service, the ambulance service, the Coast Guard and the mountain rescue service, will use the technology.
The procurement of the TETRA network was undertaken by an interdepartmental committee chaired by a representative of the Centre for Management and Organisation Development, CMOD, which is part of the Department of Finance. Following the procurement process which was conducted by open tender, the highest ranked bidder, Tetra Ireland Limited, was selected to install and operate the TETRA network which was designed to be resilient and reduce reliance on public communications networks for the emergency communications of the emergency services. The network is based on digital technology and primarily designed for voice communications. The digital technology also allows for secure communications and is protected from eavesdropping.
A competitive tender process commenced in June 2006 and attracted bids from five consortia. Tetra Ireland Limited, comprising Motorola, Eircom and Sigma Wireless — the preferred bidder — deployed a pilot system in a service performance evaluation phase of the tender process. Following the successful pilot, a full roll-out began in September 2008 under an eight-year build-own-operate contract, with completion of full nationwide coverage by the middle of this year. It is envisaged that approximately 600 base stations will be deployed to provide coverage for more than 95% of the country. It is planned that the system will be fully integrated with the mobile or cellular and fixed line networks, with which there will be full interoperability.
As an inherent design feature of the TETRA network, each user will be able to operate its own talk groups and talk to other emergency service talk groups. The network is fully interoperable between existing communications systems and communication user groups. Using TETRA, Ireland’s emergency services will, for the first time, be operating on a shared platform where inter-agency calls may be made at any time in a confidential and secure manner. It is considered that this facility will result in better management of emergencies, in particular, where the assistance of multiple agencies is required.
As the TETRA technology is dependent on the use of radio spectrum, the Commission for Communications Regulation, ComReg, has been consulted by Tetra Ireland Limited to secure the necessary authorisations, licences and approvals which are granted within its remit and pursuant to the Communications Regulation Act 2002. To grant the TETRA licence, ComReg was required to make secondary legislation which prescribed the terms and conditions, fees and specific radio spectrum to be allocated. The frequencies used for the network are harmonised throughout Europe. The rationale behind this decision was to facilitate the manufacture of equipment that would serve the European market where economies of scale would reduce the cost of the equipment. Another reason for this common approach throughout Europe was to ensure emergency services in neighbouring countries would use the same technology where interoperability between emergency services in other jurisdictions was possible. I consider this point important in that the Irish emergency services adopt and align with technologies being deployed by other emergency services across the European Union.
I understand some Senators have expressed concern about interference with television reception quality arising from the deployment of the TETRA technology. The functions under the Wireless Telegraphy Acts 1926 to 1988 for the investigation of interference to radio-based services were transferred from the Minister to the Office of the Director of Telecommunications Regulation pursuant to the Telecommunications (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1996 and subsequently to ComReg pursuant to the Communications Regulation Act 2002. Accordingly, I have no function in this regard.
Within ComReg, however, a spectrum compliance team investigates matters of interference to users of the radio spectrum. The team has received reports of interference to television reception in certain parts of the country from the building and deployment of TETRA base stations. Following its investigations, ComReg has published information on the problem of interference to television reception from the installation and operation of TETRA base stations. The ComReg publications indicated that the problem of interference is arising owing to the use of unfiltered wide-band masthead amplifiers installed with television aerials. Mast head amplifiers are generally used in the reception of weak signals over considerable distances. In Ireland most mast head amplifiers are used for the reception of signals that do not originate in Ireland but originate in Britain. The reception of Irish terrestrial stations should be possible without the use of such devices. In addition, mast head amplifiers which are old or of poor quality can cause problems not only for the user but also for their neighbours’ television reception as they may emit unwanted radio signals causing additional interference to neighbouring television reception.
Recent EU legislation, the Electromagnetic Compatibility (EMC) Directive 2004/108/EC, requires that all electrical equipment, including communications equipment, complies with the appropriate standards that allow users of communications equipment to coexist without causing interference to one another. The application of the standards associated with this directive is becoming increasingly important as the use of the radio spectrum intensifies and a greater number of users seek to use the radio spectrum for multiple purposes. The interference arising in this case is a good example of why this directive was introduced and reflects how old mast head amplifiers functioned without any difficulty in the past but now are suffering interference owing to increased use of the radio spectrum.
It should also be noted that the spectrum allocated to television broadcasting and the TETRA network is the same across the EU. Consequently this problem may not be unique to Ireland. The same compatibility issues may arise elsewhere and the use of directive compliant equipment is the only way forward.
To assist consumers in purchasing and using the appropriate equipment, the directive provides that the CE mark must be displayed on all electrical equipment that is placed on the European market. This marking is the tool which signifies that the equipment has been manufactured to the appropriate standard in order that problems such as television interference will not arise and users of the radio spectrum can coexist without causing any mutual interference.
ComReg advises that mast head filters can be purchased for as little as €15 and should be available from electrical suppliers who stock television aerials and related equipment. Where consumers use a mast head amplifier for the reception of weak television signals, they should ensure it is of high quality, is screened, filtered and carries the CE mark. Following the investigation of complaints to television reception from TETRA base stations, ComReg has published an information notice on this matter and have provided information on this matter on its website, www.askcomreg.ie.
Senator Nicky McFadden: TETRA is very important. It has been developed to address the need for confidentiality. It has benefits in that it allows communications between emergency services that will be more effective and allows them take place in areas where there were poor levels of reception, all positive and important features. The new service is more secure because it is encrypted, so Garda radio channels cannot be monitored, thus ensuring a higher level of confidentiality.
One drawback pointed out by the Garda in a press release is that there is no GPS attached to TETRA. The dogs in the street have satellite navigation capability so it is important the communications system would have GPS whereby if a Garda was in difficulty, he would be easily identifiable and could be assisted promptly.
The Minister of State washed his hands of any responsibility in his speech, as did ComReg. The negatives of TETRA also relate to poor television reception, especially for people living in areas close to Garda stations or other TETRA base stations, which is virtually every small town in the country. They will experience a degraded terrestrial television reception if they have an unfiltered wide-band mast head amplifier installed with their television aerial. Anyone who has a cable or satellite television system that is not directly connected to a terrestrial television reception system will not be affected but the areas close to Senator O’Reilly’s heart and that of Councillor John O’Hare have thousands of elderly people who are reliant on their televisions to prevent loneliness and they rely on terrestrial television services. Councillor O’Hare has told me about an elderly constituent who is experiencing severe disruption to his television reception. Before TETRA was introduced into the area, he never had a problem. It was disingenuous of the Minister of State to say the horse had already bolted and people should install filters because these people previously had perfect reception. It is unfair they must now buy this filter. Previously such people could receive RTE1, RTE2, TV3 and TG4. As a result of TETRA being introduced, the poor old man Councillor John O’Hare mentioned cannot watch any television because the quality is so bad. I have the letter the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources sent when this issue was raised. It states:
The independent wide-band mast head amplifier the Minister referred to can be found on many homes to receive television stations from outside the State, normally near the Border, or where the user wishes to split television signals between serial television sets. According to ComReg, the connection between the wide-band mast head amplifier and poor television reception is due to the amplifier taking in unwanted nearby signals from outside the television band. The Minister of State has mentioned that it can be the neighbours’ fault that a person has bad reception. That is outrageous, there was no problem before TETRA was installed. This causes the amplifier to be overloaded and, as a result, it performs incorrectly, leading to poor television reception.
The Minister of State advises anyone experiencing this problem to install a filter to alleviate the problem. This filter must be located between the aerial and the mast head so that unwanted signals from sources such as TETRA, mobile telephones and private radios are prevented from overloading the mast head amplifier. However, ComReg notes that the special filter to which the Minister of State referred must be physically installed before the installation of a mast head amplifier and that placing the special filter after the mast head amplifier has been installed will not improve television reception. ComReg states that television reception systems traditionally have been installed in such a way that they account for conditions present at the time of installation. This means that a filter would not have been installed unless a signal that could overload an amplifier was present at the time of installation.
For a person experiencing television reception problems as a result of TETRA, the cost for installation of a filter, as recommended by the Minister, Deputy Ryan, and ComReg, is approximately €120 to €150. Councillor O’Hare’s constituent is only one of the many thousands of elderly people living in the Cavan-Monaghan area who are experiencing this problem. According to ComReg, the only other option available to a person who does not have the means to install this filter is simply to remove the mast head amplifier. Why should people have to spend €150 to place a filter on their system when they had no problems beforehand?
There was no consultation with people in these areas. I blame the Government for this, especially the Green Party. There was no consultation with ordinary citizens who were simply told they would have to install a filter. The Government should compensate people to the tune of €150 so that they can install this filter and restore their television viewing.
Senator Diarmuid Wilson: I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Conor Lenihan. The roll-out of the new TETRA mobile communications system for use by the emergency services, including the Garda, is very welcome as it will improve greatly the ability of gardaí to contact each other in a confidential manner. However, its introduction without warning just before Christmas is causing major disruption to television reception in a large number of towns and villages in counties Cavan and Monaghan, including Clones, Cootehill, Castleblayney, Ballybay, Monaghan town, Emyvale, Mullagh and Shercock. A public information leaflet, which is appallingly vague and dismissive of the public, was published by ComReg after the introduction of the TETRA system. It places the onus on householders to rectify the problem by fitting a so-called TETRA reject or band pass filter. I understand the cost of such of a device ranges from €25 — not the €15 to which the Minister of State alluded — to €100, depending on quality, plus up to another €100 for a technician to fit it. I understand from my colleague, Councillor Shane P. O’Reilly, that a lady who is an old-aged pensioner in Mullagh, County Cavan, had to pay €184 plus VAT to have such a device fitted merely because she lives beside the Garda station and when this system was rolled out, her television reception disappeared.
The Minister of State referred to the information leaflet ComReg produced after the system began to roll out. On the front it states: “Television reception and TETRA — public information leaflet. What is TETRA?” There is no “Dear resident” or “In the coming weeks a new digital communications system will be rolled out called TETRA. It may have the following effects. If so, this is what you do. We apologise for any inconvenience caused.” It might have included a telephone number where people might seek information.
I checked for myself the website to which the Minister of State alluded. It states that only people living beside Garda stations or those living in the Border area would be affected and adds: “Or if you live in the countryside”. That is appalling on behalf of ComReg. It is unacceptable. No consideration was given by ComReg to ordinary people, many thousands of whom have lost their television reception and cannot afford to have these devices fitted.
Television is the only social outlet many of these people have and they follows soaps, etc. that are not shown on domestic channels. Without any notice from ComReg their television reception was taken from them. Is it not possible to fit to the actual mast some type of device similar to a TETRA rejector or a band pass filter? That would prevent the interference and relieve ordinary hard-pressed householders from having to fork out money they cannot afford during these recessionary times. Surely that is not beyond the realms of possibility in terms of technology.
My colleague, Deputy O’Hanlon, on behalf of all Oireachtas Members in counties Cavan and Monaghan, spoke to the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Ryan, on a number of occasions regarding these difficulties. The Minister hopes to meet a delegation in coming weeks.
I take this opportunity to thank my constituency colleague, Deputy Ó Caoláin, who attended a joint meeting of a number of town councils approximately two months ago. I and other colleagues were unable to attend as we were attending the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly in Cavan. I thank the Deputy for relaying the information and the concerns of the councils at that meeting to his constituency colleagues.
I wish to mention something the Minister of State referred to in his speech regarding responsibility. He stated this was not the responsibility of the Minister but of ComReg. On 25 February I tabled an Adjournment matter in this House which was ruled out of order by the Cathaoirleach on the basis that the Minister has no official responsibility in this matter. Who has responsibility in this matter? These are ordinary people whose television reception has been interfered with and further financial hardship is being visited upon them through no fault of their own. Who is responsible for that? What solutions does ComReg have to this other than to ask people to fork out money that, as licence payers, they should not have to?
The TETRA system is being rolled out gradually nationwide and it will cause problems nationwide. Before many more thousands of people are affected, can a solution not be found rather than waiting until a head of steam builds up when the problem must be dealt with eventually? There is no need to cause this concern to people. I ask the Minister of State to call on ComReg, as a matter of urgency, to carry out an audit on the number of people affected by the TETRA communications system. I would like the Minister of State to investigate further the proposal I made regarding whether some piece of technology might be acquired and put on masts to prevent this interference with television reception. I would like an answer to both questions.
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Conor Lenihan, to discuss this issue. The advent of the TETRA system is good news. Recently there was a general report on the Garda Síochána. One of the criticisms levelled at the Garda was that it did not use technology as much as other comparable police forces in the European Union. Anything like this new technology that will help communications must be welcomed and will help to align the emergency services in the way they contact each other.
The issue is the secondary impact on people which was not the intention. People have been able to watch and enjoy viewing television stations but owing to technical problems, the reception is being interfered with by the TETRA system. There has been a problem for over a year. I have been contacted by numerous residents in my own county, Meath, particularly around Kells which is not far from Senator Wilson’s area. Initially they had no idea why the problem had arisen; some had attributed it to the age of their television sets. It was only when a number of residents noted the problem that two and two was put together and they realised there was a more systemic problem in the way it affected television signals. It was at that stage people began to look for potential reasons and realised it must be due to the advent of the new TETRA system.
I am glad that there is a fix that could more or less solve the problem. As other Senators said, however, that fix comes at a cost, particularly for the less well-off in society. It is another expense they can ill afford in these hard economic times. It is not just the cost of the filter box to rectify the problem, there is also the cost of fitting the device which could run to three, four or five times the cost of the device. It is a cost no one expected to pay. I appreciate that the Minister of State has indicated that it is up to a television licence holder to ensure equipment is fit for purpose and that the Government cannot take responsibility for paying for the device. However, there must be a way to limit the cost. As we know the system will be rolled out across the country in the next while, will TETRA Ireland look at the possibility of purchasing filters in bulk in order that they could be made available at a cheaper cost than the retail price? This would make it easier for those who can least afford to meet the additional cost. The company could purchase several thousand devices and make them available at a reduced price to those members of the public who might least be able to afford to pay for this technical solution. That might go some way to making things a little easier.
I recognise that the company has done some work in communicating on the issue to make people aware that there is a technical fix. I suggest it keep going, particularly in those areas where the system has yet to be rolled out, as it is important that people are made aware of the issue. I encourage anyone in my area around Kells who is experiencing problems with television reception to contact either TETRA Ireland or me, as we can point them in the right direction to fix the problem. I thank the Minister of State for his attendance.
Minister of State at the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources (Deputy Conor Lenihan): I thank Senators McFadden, Wilson and Hannigan, among others, for their worthy contributions. We all know of and understand the technology. Senator Hannigan, more than most, got to grips with the issue. I do not intend to provide authorisation to allow the State to issue compensation to those whose television reception has been affected. Without washing my hands of responsibility for anything, it is the role of ComReg to supervise the system and advise customers and others affected by the new technology. The problem lies with older television sets which, as one speaker mentioned, are not fit for purpose. Having listened to Senators, I will contact TETRA Ireland executives and ask them to meet me to see if they can assist in genuine cases where people who are not particularly well off have to cope with big bills. I invite all those Senators who made a contribution to join me at that meeting in order that we can make these points directly to the company concerned.
It seems there have not been many complaints; there is not a lot of fear or loathing about this issue. So far ComReg has received 90 complaints. The network is virtually complete and almost fully rolled out across the country. There are some exceptions in the Border counties. I take on board Senator Wilson’s very wise suggestion that in the future, when newer generation equipment is being installed, ComReg should write to people to alert them to the actions being taken. I will ask it to place advertisements in the newspapers detailing the effects. The audit indicates that to date 90 people have been affected. A full audit is not possible because we cannot know what people have in their homes.
Deputy Conor Lenihan: It is possible for ComReg to notify people by way of placing advertisements in the newspapers. We can also ask the company to give advice or assistance to those who are unable to fund the affordable and easily obtainable technology to rectify the problem. I hope it will be amenable to this suggestion and that Senators will join me at the meeting.
As Minister of State with responsibility for science, technology and innovation, I note that this is very worthwhile technology. Coincidentally, before I was elected, I had a real job as a senior executive with Esat Digifone. I was involved in providing some of the infrastructure on which these devices are carried. It is amazing that the TETRA system is in place because it was being spoken about in the mid-1990s as a possibility. It constitutes GSM mobile phone technology being used for the radio sector. It will allow a policeman or an ambulance operator in Croatia to communicate directly with his or her equivalent in Ballinasloe, for example. It is very efficient technology.
Deputy Conor Lenihan: Speaking from experience of matters pertaining to the Garda Síochána as a senior executive in Esat Digifone, sometimes the Garda representatives associations do not want to have GPS tracking technology available in squad cars. That is sometimes an issue in the case of newer technologies, but the less said about that, the better.
Senator Diarmuid Wilson: I thank the Minister of State for attending the House. On behalf of my colleagues, I appreciate it. However, the figure of 90 complaints is nowhere near realistic, given the number of complaints we are receiving. The information leaflet distributed by ComReg lists an Internet address, but the majority of those being disadvantaged in this case are not computer literate. A simple freefone number would have been appropriate.
Deputy Conor Lenihan: I would like to bring that matter directly to the attention of the company and ComReg. We may ask both to attend the meeting so all these issues can be resolved satisfactorily. If Members have complaints beyond and dissimilar to the 90, will they please furnish them to me, the Minister or ComReg? I could forward them to ComReg to be dealt with.
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